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Archive for September 11th, 2009

Every now and then I read an article in the news that is so disturbing to me that I find I can’t speak.  Let me preface this post by saying that I am extremely interested in technology.  I am completing a graduate degree in media studies.  I just finished an article on video gaming.  But I also am an unapologetic bibliophile.  I love books.  I love that they are filled with ideas of all kinds.  I love the way they smell and the feel of a heavy book in my hand. I like having them around me–on the shelves in my house and in my study.

It seems that a certain prep school called Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, has decided that books are simply outdated and therefore, they have given away their 20,000 volume collection and are replacing it with a cafe, computer lab, and flat screen TVs.

I’m aghast and honestly, I can’t really communicate what I feel–sadness, outrage, and incredulity, are all there in varied proportions.  I’ll leave you the link to the full article  here and finally leave you with the very germane introduction to Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death (which I highly recommend).  I’ve included his entire introduction below:

hollow

“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
— Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business)

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Remembering 9-11?

When I got into my car this morning and drove the blessedly short commute to work that I have, I listened to NPR and was reminded that today is Friday, September 11th.  I hadn’t realized the date until I got in the car and turned on the radio.

The 9-11 remember phenomenon is fascinating, compelling, and slightly troubling to me.  I listened to person after person tell me that I should never forget 9-11.  The buzz phrase is, of course, “Never forget.”  Now I want to be clear: I am in not necessarily proposing that we do forget about it and move on; I recognize that remembering a trauma can be extremely cathartic, both personally and collectively, and there are good reasons for remembering various disasters.  What I would like to see, though, is more context for the call to remember 9-11.  People walk around today telling each other to “never forget”, but the obvious question to be begged is “Why?”  If we do not have a goal in mind for our remembering–a purpose for working through the trauma and remembering it–a deliberateness to our exercise of memory, then we will not deploy the emotions that are stirred up by that memory to any particular action and there will be nothing more political in our actions than merely saying, “never forget” to one another.

What concerns me about this lack of focus to the enterprise of remembering is that if we evoke emotions through remembering but then do not deploy them in any deliberate enterprise, we are all worked up with nothing to do.  It is very easy for people to provide unhelpful opportunities to do something with all that emotion by suggesting that we deploy it toward something divisive or hateful.  Some might (and have) suggested that we adopt attitudes of exclusion toward Arabs or Americans of Arab descent.  Some might (and have) suggested that all Muslims must, by nature of the fact that they are Muslims, hate Americans and be violent people.  This kind of rhetorical hijacking of our emotions to convince people of a specific (and racist) agenda is deplorable and all too common.  Some organizations, newscasters, and individuals love to argue through an appeal to fear, and this tactic works very well.  There is a tremendous opportunity on the anniversary of 9-11 to stimulate people’s fear and use the (appropriate) emotions of sadness and loss that are already there from the memorial of this event to try to convince people of positions and policies that we might never consider in March or around Christmastime.  But on September 11, when we remember the towers burning and falling, when we remember the national unity surrounding the disaster and the outrage that many Americans felt, it is easier to convince people to do things they might not do when the emotions of sadness, anger, and loss aren’t as strong.

So my suggestion is not to stop telling each other to “Never forget.”  Rather, my suggestion is to not stop at a catchy phrase that can go on a bumper sticker, but continue the thought on.  Tell each other what it is that we should never forget, and most importantly, tell each other why.  Use the memories and the emotions, both collective and individual, that are dredged up every anniversary of this disaster to fuel a deliberate introspection of our beliefs.  Reject the attempt of others to work you up into a person who is responding only to the emotions, and instead couple them with reason and time.  The national defense policies or the immigration policies or the political philosophies I support should be as reasonable in February or June as they are on September 11.

If they are not, then the damage done by September 11 goes far beyond destroying airplanes and skyscrapers.  Then the damage is to our own reason, to our own freedom of thought, and the act of terrorism goes even further by convincing us to subjugate ourselves to our own emotions and hold ourselves as slaves to our impulses.  What is a bomb compared to that?  A bomb cannot destroy our ability to reason, our character, or our personal or national dignity.  Surrender to the whimsy of our emotions can.

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